Ice Fire burns in San Juan County

  • The Ice Fire on Monday night, courtesy San Juan County Office of Emergency Management
    The Ice Fire on Monday night, courtesy San Juan County Office of Emergency Management

UPDATE 5:30 p.m. TUESDAY 10/20

The San Juan National Forest has officially closed down access to all forest lands from Ophir Pass Road to the south ridge above South Mineral Canyon. This includes Rolling Mountain, Twin Sisters and Bear Mountain, with U.S. Highway 550 as the boundary on the east and the Uncompahgre National Forest on the west. The order comes this afternoon from Forest Supervisor Kara Chadwick as crews continue to fight the Ice Fire.

An official message went out to San Juan County residents this afternoon advising them to prepare a plan just in case of evacuation, in the "ready" stage of the "ready, set, go" stages of evacuation. This means they should just be prepared in case they have more than 48 hours notice to evacuate if the fire is a threat. At this time the fire is not threatening any property in the area aside from power transmission lines belonging to San Miguel Power Association, according to information from forest officials.

UPDATE: 11 a.m. Tuesday 10/20

The Ice Fire burning in San Juan County has grown to an estimated 500 acres.

Infrared mapping was conducted overnight, showing the growth in the blaze, according to San Juan National Forest spokeswoman Esther Godson.

Yesterday, the fire was estimated to be about 320 acres. However, hot and dry weather provided the right conditions for the fire to spread overnight. The fire reportedly started on Monday afternoon in the area of the Ice Lakes trailhead.

"Right now the real focus for our firefighters is keeping the fire north of South Mineral Road and west of Highway 550," Godson said. One of the other goals is to protect the South Mineral campground as well as San Miguel Power Association transmission lines through the area.

Ground fire crews worked into the night conducting ignition operations, commonly known as a "burnout" operation to reduce fuels ahead of the fire and strategically use natural barriers to slow the fire.

"Conveniently, there are a lot of avalanche chutes in the area," Godson said, which are providing some of those natural barriers to defend against the oncoming fire.

Today's weather is predicted to be hot, dry and windy, providing plenty of opportunity for the fire to grow. Fire managers use what's called the Haines Index to gauge the stability and dryness of the air over a fire. Today's forecast shows there is a Haines Index of 5 in the area – on a scale of 2 to 6 – with the highest numbers indicating the biggest potential for fire growth.

"It is not the type of forecast that you want this time of year," Godson said.

Fire managers are expecting more smoke columns today, potentially reducing air quality in the area and spreading smoke throughout the region.

The fire is burning in heavy timber, on steep terrain, and fire crews are seeing extreme fire behavior including torching. They're relying heavily on aerial resources to fight the fire directly, using fixed-wing aircraft as well as helicopters with water drops.

At this time, there are no evacuations planned and no structures are threatened. But fire managers are asking people to stay away from the area and make plans for alternate travel due to smoke.

"We are strongly encouraging all public to avoid the area and make alternate plans," said Godson. This includes the stretch of Highway 550 through the area. "That highway is not good on a good day," she said. Between smoke impacts and dangers presented by people slowing down on the roadway, "We really want people to avoid that area entirely," she said.

Officials are also asking people to avoid flying drones in the area, which is not only dangerous to firefighting operations, but also illegal.

"If we see a drone we have to shut down all aviation on the fire," Godson said. This puts firefighters at risk on the ground without air support and potentially could allow the fire to grow larger if firefighting aircraft are grounded due to drones.

A report of someone offering drone footage of the blaze yesterday prompted more warnings about drones being off-limits in firefighting areas. ______________________________________________


UPDATE 12:01 a.m. Tuesday 10/20

The Ice Fire west of Silverton has burned an estimated 320 acres so far, just hours after it was originally reported around 1 p.m. Monday afternoon. According to the San Juan County Office of Emergency Management, 23 hikers and three dogs were evacuated by helicopter from areas above the Ice Lakes trailhead on Monday, as they were trapped above the fire.

At this time, a Type 3 Incident Management Team is trying to put the fire out using a "full suppression" strategy, according to information from the San Juan National Forest. They're trying to protect South Mineral Campground and are hoping to prevent the blaze from spreading south of South Mineral Road. The fire is burning in a rugged area full of heavy timber.

Five helicopters, six single-engine air tankers, four engines, one helitack crew, one air attack and one fire suppression module are currently assigned to the Ice Fire. The aerial resources are working in the particularly rough terrain to try to gain ground against the fire. 

Forecasts for warm weather with wind, no precipitation and dry fuels signal the fire could spread quickly. Stage 1 fire restrictions remain in place for the San Juan National Forest, though they were lifted in some neighboring areas including Ouray County and the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests recently. The San Juan National Forest kept its restrictions in place, which were adopted back in August, "due to dry fuels and critical lack of available firefighting resources nationwide," according to the agency's website.

Officials are asking anyone moving through the area on U.S. Highway 550 to avoid stopping to watch aircraft working on the fire, to avoid creating a dangerous situation and backing up traffic. Smoke is expected to be visible today in the region.

There is no immediate threat of evacuations for residents, but San Juan County officials are also asking people who live in the area to familiarize themselves with the three-phase "ready, set, go" evacuation plan that will be activated if an evacuation is ordered. They should also sign up for emergency text notifications by texting 81433 to 888-777.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation.


UPDATE: 5:10 p.m. Monday 10/19

Firefighters making an aerial attack on a fire burning west of Silverton have requested more resources, as high winds, unseasonably warm temperatures and dry conditions push the blaze through heavy timber.

U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Esther Godson said a fixed-wing airplane and a Type 2 helicopter, along with ground crews, are currently battling the fire, but that an additional six single-engine air tankers and four Type 1 helicopters are en route. A Type 3 incident management team will take over firefighting operations tonight.

"It is burning in heavy timber, and burning with high intensity and high rates of spread," Godson said around 5 p.m.

She said the official name of the fire is the Ice Fire.

Godson said smoke from the fire is visible from Montrose, and she implored drivers passing through on U.S. Highway 550 to not stop and watch the fire or firefighting operations.

"That highway is extremely dangerous on a pleasant day," she said.

The entire state of Colorado is currently in some level of drought, with nearly all of Ouray and San Juan counties experiencing exceptional drought — the highest-rated category.


2:30 p.m. Monday, 10/19

A wildfire has burned 15 to 20 acres and trapped hikers near the popular Ice Lakes trailhead west of Silverton this afternoon, authorities announced.

The U.S. Forest Service said an aerial crew is in route to battle the blaze, while San Juan County officials said hikers have been evacuated by helicopter. The San Juan County Sheriff's Office has closed and is evacuating South Mineral Road, a popular area for camping that leads to the Ice Lakes trailhead.

Forest Service officials said the fire had scorched 15 to 20 acres as of 2:30 p.m. and was burning in heavy timber.

This is a developing story. Updates will be posted on as they become available.